Guest piece: For the love of game development

Guest piece: For the love of game development

Paul Symons has worked as a Digital Marketer for 15 years and currently works as the head of digital for an agency. He recently took up app development as a hobby to continue his learning.

Paul’s recent release, Plasma Pig was awarded App of the Week by Corona Labs in June 2013. In his guest piece, Paul writes about the lessons he learned on generating a profit in a competitive market and on developing for the sheer enjoyment of making games.

Paul Symons This is my stark and honest reflection of creating apps for iOS and Android. Please remember though, that I am not a company, just one guy, trying very, very hard to ‘make it’ in a massively crowded marketplace.

I’d like to start by talking about assumptions. What do I mean by that? Well, before I made Plasma Pig, I had made some much smaller games, mainly for kids. These games were a bit quick and dirty: Number Pop, Shave the Sheep and Magic Spell. I built all these games with Corona SDK, and the platform was, and continues to be, an absolute pleasure to work with. Through creating these apps, I learned a huge amount about Corona, the various app stores and the processes for getting a game published.

Image my surprise when these little games started getting 10-20 downloads a day… each! I thought to myself, “Ok, if I extrapolate that across a year, that’s over £5000 (at 69p per app!).” Not bad for a couple months of evening work! It’s amazing the motivation that earning money brings.

So, back to my assumptions. I assumed that:

  1. By making a bigger game with better graphics, better sound and more levels, I would get more downloads.
  2. If I did more PR and marketing I was assured to succeed.

Unfortunately, neither of those seeded true. I hear you shout: “But Paul, there are loads of review sites out there and that’s just the way to get your app seen and heard.”

Well, assumptions are a dangerous thing. Plasma Pig took me six months of hard work, based on the assumption that the time I invested would be justly rewarded by the general public. After launch, based on an assumption I thought ‘time to market this bad boy,’ I made a free version, reached out to every conceivable review site (not an easy task), spent several hundred dollars on Facebook mobile ads, and paid some ‘professional’ PR companies to do the same.

Well it appears I wasn’t deluded, and Plasma Pig *is* a good game as most review sites have a 5-star rating system and I never received lower than a 4-star review. Some review sites even made Plasma Pig “App of the Day” and Corona Labs was kind enough to make the game App of the Week. Plasma Pig even got into the local newspaper which has a readership of 250,000. Brill! So with all of that I must have seen an uplift in sales right? Nope! Nothing. Plasma Pig, while critically successful is still essentially unknown and selling roughly 4-5 downloads a day on the App Store and 2-3 a day on Google Play with no downloads on Amazon Appstore.

Why? Honestly I don’t know. Unfortunately, I have to come to conclusion that I simply do not have enough money to invest to make it successful. There are sites out there that guarantee you Top 25 in the App Store for $49,000 (yes, that’s what you’re up against) but it has taught me some VERY valuable lessons, that I really hope all Corona developers take on.

  1. While reviews are great, don’t assume that they are the answer to getting huge downloads. They aren’t. The most effective marketing I did was to keep badgering friends to download and review.
  2. Make your game awesome, please! Part of the reason our apps are so hard to find is that there is a LOT of rubbish out there, but DON’T assume that just because your game is great that revenues will be up.
  3. If you’re going to make a free version of your game, pay a lot of attention to converting people to the paid version.
  4. And this is the most important bit: don’t be dis-heartened, and keep creating. You’re in it because you love it, right?

As for me, I still have high hopes for Plasma Pig, and I’ll keep fighting the good fight. I’m still pushing review sites, newspapers, friends and anyone else who will listen.

I’m also getting on with creating more games, and this time I fear I may need to try the in-app purchase route (not a method I’m 100% on-board with) to monetize my game.

The key here, is that while I’m still plugging away and intend to keep on creating with Corona SDK, I’m back to where I was at the beginning, developing games because I love it, not because I’m thinking of the ensuing riches.

  • Robert Gleason
    Posted at 11:54h, 12 September

    Nice write-up. Your experience has lined up with mine as well. I have made a couple apps that took longer and thought they would do better.. Only to have them be invisible in the markets. But i have also had some that i thought would go nowhere and have had huge peaks of sales!

    In all I continue to make the games because I enjoy doing it! and with every new game out there I make… Its one more Hook in the water that perhaps one day will catch a really big fish!

  • Dave
    Posted at 15:22h, 12 September

    In my experience it’s really just luck of the draw. I’ve literally released an app let it run for a month and it took off the market. I ended up with 25k downloads after 30 days. I then released the same app on the same day and kept everything the same as when I launched the same app a month earlier. After 30 days the same exact app had a total of 700 downloads.

    I found that it’s better to release a bunch of decent apps rather then spend many many months on 1 app hoping that it will pay off. With that being said you can’t push out bad looking games. You just need to find that mix of speed and polish.

  • Chase Morell
    Posted at 11:34h, 16 September

    I am having the same problem with an app I published to the google play store, Highway Rumble 2. Its a free game and I only get 2-5 downloads a day. Its just ridiculous. Google Play needs a better way of app discovery. Unless someone magically searches “Highway Rumble 2”, I’m not going to get any downloads. As a teenager, I’m not going to spend any money on advertising when my app is free.

    Please Download Highway Rumble 2 for Android.

  • Kevin Corti
    Posted at 01:16h, 20 September

    I think your experience is extremely common and not just for one-person developers; it is just as hard for small studios that spend $100k, $250k or more on a game.

    I was Studio Manager at a mobile games developer in the UK last year and joined just as they released the first version of a side-scrolling RPG. Whilst I couldn’t claim that the game – at v1.0 – was earth-shatteringly good, it was nonetheless a pretty compelling game (cost us approx $250k) and was free (FreetoPlay at least). We spent in the order of $25k on incentivised installs in order to get AppStore chart visibility in the hope of getting that ‘organic uplift’ that we’re all conditioned to aim for. The reality was that the game hung around the top 50-75 for about a week then fell from view. I recall that we got 50k or so downloads from that but the install rate fell off dramatically once we were no longer in the charts.

    My point is that the whole app/game ecosystem is now geared in favour of those with deep pockets and the companies that control access to the player audiences (offers, incentivised installs, in-game promotions, paid-for cross-promotion, paid reviews etc etc). We have ‘free’ distribution as small/indie devs but we do not have free access to players; far from it.

    I see ‘services’ that claim to be able to deliver a top10 chart position for $100k and I regularly hear of developers/publishers who are spending $100k on week one burst advertising. The larger publishers are reportedly spending between $1m-$5m on marketing some titles. This isn’t a level playing field and is rapidly pricing all but the big boys out of user acquisition (read; “commercial viability”). IMHO this is failing not just the smaller dev community but consumers. That’s a broken market in my view. The correlation between product visibility and product quality is, generally speaking, highly distorted and that is not good for the wider industry as a whole.

    Its unrealistic to think that marketing isn’t important in a maturing competitive industry, but when success is so highly-dependent upon AppStore visibility (or, for example, Facebook App Centre visibility) and, in 99% of cases, this is only achieved through huge advertising/incentivised installs, then the outlook doesn’t look too rosy for small devs (and, by extension, tools makers like Corona ).

    Apple have just started incorporating user reviews into their ranking algorithm but all that means is that companies (cough..Zynga) go and pay 250 people for a 5* rating and bingo they rank in the top 20.

    Personally I think there needs to be a better way to connect GOOD games with players that might want them. I’m working on an early-stage concept for a discovery platform that can surface visibility to games that are engaging their audiences irrespective of the volume and velocity of installs or the current revenue levels.

    I’d dearly love input from smaller/indie mobile games developers along the way. I’ve set up a launch site for devs and players alike to register their interest and am currently (separately) in the process of raising some seed funding to get an MVP of the platform together.

    If the potential platform/service is of potential interest to you please do visit and tell us your email address so we can let you know how things progress.

    It’s no longer good enough to “just have a good game”….but it should be!


    • Husam Sarris
      Posted at 10:07h, 20 September

      A great Idea Kevin!
      You are right, we do need such a method to help indie dev’s and to remove the luck factor when publishing games.
      If your game is good, it should get its fair share of downloads and exposure.